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New SIG Regulations Ramp up Focus on Early Education

Early learning has been one of the Obama administration’s strongest education initiatives in the President’s second term, and the Education Department’s recently proposed changes to the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program appear to reinforce this commitment. The SIG program, which received a makeover and funding boost under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aims to fix the nation’s lowest-performing schools through a variety of turnaround models. (Here’s an overview of the four turnaround models that grantees have been able to choose from in the past.)

While it’s premature to determine the program’s success, the results have been inconsistent thus far. Of the approximately 1,500 schools that have received SIG funds since 2009, only two-thirds have seen an increase in student achievement. This isn’t surprising given that many of these schools are implementing sweeping reforms in a short time frame, but it does suggest there is room for improvement. Thus, the federal government decided to update the program earlier this year. And according to the Department, the proposed changes “reflect lessons learned from four years of SIG implementation.” The new rules offer grantees greater flexibility, no longer limit them to the four strict turnaround models, and provide clearer guidance on areas that posed problems in the past.

Under the proposed regulations, local education agencies (LEAs) would be able to use SIG funds to implement an Early Learning Intervention Model. This would require districts to implement the following strategies: offer full-day kindergarten (The proposed guidance, however, does not offer a definition for “full-day” and as we’ve written before, states have diverse interpretations.); establish or expand a high-quality pre-K program as defined in the Preschool Development Grants program; and provide teachers at all levels with time for joint planning across grades so that they can “facilitate effective teaching and learning and positive teacher-student interactions.”

Additionally, LEAs would need to enact other reforms required under the existing transformation model, including implementing teacher evaluation systems, rewarding teachers who improve student outcomes, replacing the principal, and employing job-embedded professional development.

Here at the Early Education Initiative, we are pleased to see that the proposed changes include a new focus on pre-K and the early elementary grades. In our recent paper, Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education, my colleagues emphasize the importance of teaching and learning and the interactions between adults and children. They explain that interactions are “a critical component of learning,” and both skilled teachers and sufficient time in the classroom are necessary for such interactions to occur. Access to high-quality pre-K and kindergarten allows children to establish a strong educational foundation and enter the early grades on track to succeed. Pre-K and kindergarten matter, but they cannot stand alone. They are part of the larger elementary school continuum, and the proposed requirement for joint planning and coordination across grades acknowledges this.

The Department’s recommendations also resemble those presented at our Turnaround 2.0event last year, where we brought school turnaround and early education leaders together to discuss how SIG could better meet the needs of early learners. Early education has been somewhat overlooked in turnaround discussions--under the old regulations, only one of the four models gave grantees the option of using the funds for early childhood education. This was a missed opportunity because focusing on school quality early on can limit the need for intervention in later grades.

The new SIG regulations include other promising changes that aren’t directly related to early education. For instance, the Department wants to extend the grant period from three to five years. SIG grantees are asked to make sizable changes, so more time to plan and implement reforms could help ensure their sustainability. The full proposal is in the Federal Register.

When turning around the nation’s lowest performing schools, early learning needs to be part of the conversation because of its potential to influence children’s trajectories. The proposed SIG regulations are up for public comment until October 8, 2014.